Letter to College Presidents

Letter to College Presidents

Dear College President/Administrator,

The 2024 election season will soon be upon us. With that in mind, I am writing to you on behalf of a group of youth voting and good government organizations to ask that you explore and, where appropriate, intervene to promote a polling place on your campus. In New York State, the deadline for determining poll sites is March 15th.

As you may be aware, in April 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul approved budgetary legislation that contained several pro-voting measures, including one that mandates poll sites on college campuses in New York with more than 300 registered voters. Advocates of the measure have stressed the benefits of promoting youth voting, which is 10 to 25% below older demographics, and the need to combat discriminatory practices of county Boards of Election, some of which have targeted college students by limiting on-campus poll sites and gerrymandering campuses into multiple voting districts.

We welcomed this step at Bard College in Dutchess County, where students, faculty and administrators, led by the Center for Civic Engagement and a student group (Election@Bard) have engaged in a quarter-century battle to ensure student voting rights, including four successful Federal and State lawsuits. The 2022 legislation was in part a result of the tumult at Bard and the egregious actions of the Dutchess County Board of Elections as outlined in lawsuits filed in 2020 and 2021 to help bring a polling place to the Bard Campus.

Unfortunately, as two recent studies show, state and local election administrators have not adequately prioritized or fully implemented this critical voter protection legislation: the vast majority of colleges in New York state do not have on-campus poll sites and there has been almost no change since the passage of this legislation. A team of Rutgers Law School clinical students, under the supervision of Professor Yael Bromberg, Esq., conducted a study demonstrating that there had only been a minor increase (2.2%) in the presence of on-campus poll sites between the 2018 and 2022 elections, when the law came into effect. (The law allowed for reassignments of poll sites after the State’s annual March 15 deadline for poll site designation).

The study released by the Bard College Center for Civic Engagement found that there was negligible change between the November 2022 elections and the November 2023 elections. This is the interval during which for the first time the law mandating poll sites on college campuses would be in effect for the annual March 15 State deadline for assigning poll sites. In that time, the study identified only three instances in which public and private colleges campuses added poll sites: Hostos Community College and Brooklyn College (which are both part of the CUNY system, which has its own initiative to promote early voting sites) and Vassar College in Dutchess County (which only gained a poll site after litigation was initiated by a faculty member and supported by the League of Women Voters). The overall picture at college campuses remains bleak. Amongst 64 private institutions surveyed with more than 1,000 undergraduates, only 25% have poll sites. If we lower the student population among private institutions to those with more than 600 undergraduates, the percentage of institutions with poll sites drops to only 22%. The four-year public institutions surveyed with more than 1,000 undergraduates have better rates, at just under 50% for regular or early voting. Community colleges that have on-campus residences have very low rates, at around 16%, though the lower density of residents helps explain this. In all, 38% of public institutions surveyed have polling sites on campus.

With the March 15 deadline for determining poll sites in New York State fast approaching, now is the time to engage with local Boards of Election to determine if your campus is eligible for a poll site and to help identify a suitable location. A quick checklist of actionable items includes: 1) promoting student voter registration prior to the March 15 deadline; 2) reaching out to student groups involved in voter registration, advocacy, and related civic engagement efforts to encourage them to begin peer-led voter registration efforts in time for the March 15 deadline; 3) identifying suitable poll sites on campus; 4) consulting with local Boards of Election to determine if there are 300 or more locally registered voters (students, faculty, and staff) residing on campus. In cases where there are fewer than 300 registered voters on campus, we still encourage you to offer to host a poll site on campus in the hope that it will inspire higher turnout for on-campus voters. 

Some institutions have been hesitant to engage with voting issues for fear of being accused of partisanship. We view student voting rights as a non-partisan and educational issue. Throughout our country’s history, institutions of higher learning have consistently underlined the link between education and citizenship, and the right to vote as a foundational right of citizenship. As educators, we should be particularly sensitive to data showing that those who vote early in their lives develop habits that they carry forth throughout their lives. The law is explicit in terms of the right to have a voting place on campus. Federal law already requires colleges to be involved in the voting process: the Higher Education Amendments of 1998 brought colleges into the voter registration process by including a mandate requiring higher education institutions to make a “good faith effort to distribute a mail voter registration form . . . to each student enrolled in a degree or certificate program… and to make such forms widely available to students at the institution” during years in which there are federal or gubernatorial elections. In addition, Section 7 of The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) allowed states to name state colleges, universities, and community colleges as designated voter registration agencies.

The need to focus on youth voting remains acute. Despite some progress in recent years, the youth vote lags behind other demographics. While voting among 18- to 24-year-olds reached 51.8% in the 2020 elections, a jump from 43% in 2016, it remained more than 10% lower than among 25- to 44-year-olds and 20% lower than 45- to 65-year-olds. In the 2022 midterms, only 30% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, nearly 15 points less than 25- to 44-year-olds and more than 35% less than those 65 and over. Registration numbers also lag: in 2022, a mere 52% of 18- to 24-year-olds registered to vote, 25% less than those 65 and older. Among the top reasons cited by 18- to 24-year-olds for not voting in 2022 is that they were “too busy,” had “conflicting work,” and/or that voting clashed with their “school schedule” (13.5%), or that they were “out of town” (28.4%).

It is true that many students vote absentee and we encourage institutions to support students with such efforts. You should, however, be aware that studies show that this remains challenging for young people, as it requires them to take many steps in a convoluted process that is becoming more difficult as many states impose new restrictions.  

Registering students to vote and encouraging polling sites on campus are among the most important things we can do, but they are not all. We also encourage you to reach out to such groups as the Andrew Goodman Foundation, Partners for Campus-Community Engagement, and the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge to help expand your outreach and engagement efforts on this important issue. We also encourage you to engage with our New York State allies who stand with us in this effort, including: the Andrew Goodman Foundation, Brooklyn Voters Alliance, Citizens Union, Democracy Matters, GenVote, NYPIRG, NYVote/Next Generation Politics, Stand Up America, Partners for Campus-Community Engagement, and Vote Early New York.

We thank you for your consideration. Only by acting together can we realize the promise of the 2022 law and, more broadly, the 26th Amendment.

We thank you for your consideration. If you have questions, please contact us at [email protected].

Yours cordially,

Jonathan Becker
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Director, Center for Civic Engagement